by Ray Vukcevich
Mornings I practiced being blind, because I wanted to be ready for it. Shoes were easy. Getting grape jelly onto a peanut butter sandwich was hard. Smell the apple. Lunch! But where was that recycled plastic bag? Still in the briefcase. Rats. It would be four strides to the kitchen door, fingers on the wall down the hall, and into the living room and over to the couch and the briefcase. I put out my hands like a zombie and took one, two, three quick steps, and then ran right into someone, my hands and then my face slapping onto hot naked skin — wood smoke, smelly cheese, lots of wiry hair.
I yelped and jumped back and snapped open my eyes, but everything remained dark. I’d gone blind at the very moment I’d bumped into an impossible intruder. The door was double-locked, I was on the fifth floor, there could not be anyone here, but there was.
“Hello?” So this was the way it would be from now on — people or things quietly making faces and holding up rabbit ears behind my head. I rushed left and right and turned all the way around and around playing blind man’s bluff. I should have hit the counter, but I didn’t. Was I still in the kitchen?
I stopped and heard soft sloshing like water stroking the sides of a boat. I moved with exaggerated swimming motions, but I encountered only endless emptiness. No furniture. No walls.
Then I got down on the floor. It was 1994 again and we were new in the old house — huge echoing rooms and wooden floors, no electricity, two broken plastic lawn chairs and an old mattress somewhere out there beyond the candlelight. All we need is laughter, and love and really good weed and tequila making giggle magic knocking us off our feet, just you and me, sweetie, like country fair shooting gallery ducks bang first the one and then the other. You blow out the candle expecting me to crawl after you, but you don’t wait to see if I do, and I’m lost in a cold smooth black ocean swimming for a wall that isn’t there. I’ve been washed overboard, and the ship has tooted and sailed, tooted more quietly and sailed into the night, silence now. I cling to a box, I don’t know what’s in the box, I don’t know how it got here, oh, it isn’t even a box, it isn’t anything at all. The dark water freezes, and I crawl out onto the ice. For years, I pretend I can still hear the party boat and see the lights, but I can’t. I remember modifying Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite joke to say you’d sailed on ahead to find us another big, empty house, and the two of you were up in heaven waiting for me to come crawling over the ice and up onto the porch where I’d make doorbell noises. Maybe there would be elves serving tea and sugar cookies.
Days later, I bump into the hairy thing again. It must have gotten down on the floor and into the water and then up onto the ice, too. It’s warm and makes a soft sleepy bird twittering sound, and I am one of the blind men who will later be questioned about the elephant we are examining with our fingers. I move in and snuggle up, just me and my chimpanzee, no, bigger, maybe a white bear or a colossal dog with probably more than one head. I wonder if it even notices me.
Ray Vukcevich’s new collection is called Boarding Instructions (Fairwood Press). He has also written Meet Me in the Moon Room (Small Beer Press) and The Man of Maybe Half-a-Dozen Faces (St. Martin’s). Recent stories include “Fish Cakes” in Welcome to the Greenhouse (OR Books). Read more about his work at http://www.RayVuk.com
I wrote “Out on the Ice” for a workshop reading. It had to be no longer than 1000 words, and it was within a few words of that when I read it. But it needed to be 600 words or less for The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Some things are as compressed as they will ever be, but most things could squeeze it in a little. Often reducing the number of words expands a story. When you are not distracted by the superfluous, you can see more. That’s the case here. There is more at 600 words than there was at a thousand.
The image of bumping into someone while walking with my eyes closed came to me while I was walking with my eyes closed. I apply eye drops and then do 8 to 10 minutes of exercise with my eyes closed — stretching, push-ups, touching my toes, hip swivels, deep knee bends. I do this 6 times a day. And yes, I can make a blind peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I usually peek during the jelly stage after a sudden shuddering flash of children needing hugs, tweaking your nose, patting your face, running their grape jelly fingers through your hair.
In the dark, it’s easy to get spooked thinking there is someone or something right there in front of you watching, making faces, getting up so close but not quite touching, ready to yell boo. Sometimes I just have to snap open my eyes and look! But some day that probably won’t make any difference. Unless I live long enough to overcome opposition to stem cell research, or something else pops up I can afford. Who knows?
Also, I want a robot.
The story was supposed to capture all of time in one life, the past, the future, and most important “now.” Very short fiction is especially suited to talking about the present moment — whatever in the world we mean when we say “moment.”
Compression is breathing in. Decompression is breathing out. Fiction, maybe more so flash fiction, needs to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. You draw in the room, the building, the city, the world, the sky and the stars, and everything. The boring parts settle to the bottom, and you step out of them like dirty socks. We are alive and endless inside but no one can tell from just looking at us. The universe is an infinite plain dotted with people and things sitting in the lotus position or some other position if they can’t bend their legs like that of if they don’t actually have legs, maybe wheels instead, or tentacles. Watching all the people sit quietly, compressed, each one off alone somewhere, you want to knock on their heads and shout is anyone alive in there? Tell me your stories! Up close there is nothing to see but an occasional spark (bzzzt) from nostril to nostril. Your nose is a fairy taser, Penelope. Who? Never mind her. Everyone leaps up when you knock and runs around in a panic shocking one another with their noses. Then things settle again with a sigh. Breathing in, compacting — breathing out, a whoosh.
Imagine a sudden flash lasting maybe only seconds that changes your brain to a state similar to the state it was in after you read those thousands of pages of a trilogy, for example. A couple of hands seize your head and on each finger there is a little hand and on the fingers of those tiny hands even smaller hands, down and down, to the quantum stuff, probing, poking at your brain, flipping the switches, painting the walls, rearranging the furniture — okay, that nearly does it, one more tweak here and another there, and there it is — the afterimage of the experience, and you can’t really tell if it took 60 seconds or many days. When you’re haunted, the actual size of the ghost doesn’t much matter. Squeaky little mouse ghost with his axe — oh, no! he’s run out of your ear and up your nose! Or something huge like the dark energy that fills the holes in all the universes. It all has to do with now and the length of now, but that’s another story. Oddly, this decompression is not much longer than the story. I guess everything that is breathed in doesn’t always make it out again.